I don’t mean it’s the best place to fall in love. I certainly haven’t found it here. But in spite of my lackluster Tinder dates up and down the U Street corridor, I have fallen in love with Washington.
I think of cities as personalities. New York is the handsome and unattainable jock. It has a flashy bravado, a swagger. New York will never call you, and when it does, it will forget you the next morning. It’s fickle and self-centered because it can be. New York knows that even if you leave, there’s a million other young, pretty people lining up to move in.
My home town of Buffalo, on the other hand, is the Ralph Bellamy of cities. It’s warm and kind, but you may have strayed from it for a while to pursue a more cosmopolitan, Cary Grant-type suitor. It doesn’t care who you have become because it remembers you when you were young. When you return, rejected from New York, Buffalo will be there to welcome you with open arms and a mug of hot chocolate. Where New York is cynical in spite of its success, Buffalo is optimistic in spite of its failures.
Washington, by contrast, is the nerd who turned out to be better-looking after he graduated from high school. It’s an intellectual hub that can feel European when you’re feeding pigeons in Dupont Circle and quintessentially American when you’re strolling past the rowhouses in Shaw. Its skyline is not a sensory overload of skyscrapers whose spires climb higher to outdo each other. When you look out from the perch of Cardozo, you see a flat plain with just a few highlights in the distance: the alabaster Washington monument and the soft glow of the Capitol dome.
Washington may be changing, but it’s still more of a constant lover than New York. There are dependable quirks to the city. I love walking through the intersection of Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW, where I get a whiff of perfumed oils and hear a man playing go-go music on his boombox. I love spending a Sunday in Meridian Hill Park, where I can see the confluence of cultures and stages of life on one hilltop: a girl posing in a pink dress for her quinceanera; a couple marching up the pebbled steps from their wedding; and a gaggle of moms corralling their toddlers for a picnic. I love knowing that almost nothing will stop the drum circle from starting that afternoon and stretching into the humid night.
Most people love D.C. in the spring, when humidity is low and the cherry blossoms form a ring of pink lace around the basin. But when August arrives, with its languid heat and lush greenery bursting from Rock Creek Park, I feel the promise of a new year. It takes me back to when I unpacked my bags for the first time in my American University dorm room.
I love the familiar rhythm the academic institutions bring to the city. I know I can sit on my roof on a late October day and hear the horns from Howard University’s homecoming. I know I can look from my Yellow Line train to work and see the Georgetown crew team gliding down the river. I know I’ll spot AU students trickling down Massachusetts Avenue around Halloween, many of them dressed in topical, political costumes, to trick or treat in the South Korea, Ireland and Ivory Coast embassies. I know that on a warm night I’ll see a new crop of college kids taking a tour of the monuments, perhaps a bit tipsy. They’ll lie down and place their legs on that grand obelisk so they can “walk” up, just like we once did when we were new to this town and the Mall was the most awe-inspiring playground we had ever seen.
I’m always reminded of how much of I love D.C. when I come back on the train from New York. I brush off that thin film of dirt that settles on you in Manhattan, walk under Union Station’s palatial arches and I am at peace. And then you get that beautiful, Capra-esque moment as you push open the front doors of the station and see the Capitol dome shining in front of you. It never fails to remind me what a privilege it is to live in the center of a great democratic experiment.
It’s a similar but different feeling from when you see the Empire State Building or the Hollywood sign. Those symbols have no doubt inspired countless ingénues, but toward selfish pursuits of money and fame. Sure, there’s no dearth of self-involved people in Washington (some may even end up in the White House), but there’s an idealistic fervor here that is unique from those other cities of strivers.
D.C. is one of the few places in America where a keen interest in civics isn’t mocked, it’s celebrated. You see that quirky passion when your friends cram into your rowhouse to watch debates and make a presidential bingo scorecard. You can sit down to a casual lunch and strike up a conversation about women in the military with the two-star general sitting next to you. For a girls’ night out, you might suggest lining up to listen to Madeleine Albright speak at a think tank. When your college friends reminisce about their days tailgating, you’ll remember when your friends celebrated decisions on the steps of the Supreme Court and election outcomes in Lafayette Square.
People who live here often say everyone is transient, and, in our 20s, that may be the case. But I’ve also seen plenty of transplanted residents fall prey to Potomac Fever. When they do return from their stints in the Peace Corps or their prestigious graduate schools or a year campaigning in Iowa, D.C. hasn’t forgotten about them. It’s not like New York, which chews you up and spits you out. D.C. seduces you when you least expect it.
New York could never be the unconditional partner that Washington has been to me the past five years. D.C. is patient and kind. It does not boast. It does not spit on you or drop strange, warm liquid from seven stories above your head that you hope to god is just moisture from an air conditioner.
Before you know it, you’ve fallen in love.